New center breeds hope
Advocates, attorneys partner to help homeless citizens
With all the hand-wringing over what to do about the homelessness situation in Chico, and talk of “taking back” public spaces from those who have no private ones to retreat to, a couple of local entities have been working behind the scenes the past few months to remove some of what they see as barriers to getting off the streets.
What are those barriers? The first is substance abuse, which is prevalent on the streets. The second is getting caught up in the court system: An arrest warrant can mean the difference between being approved for housing or not; it can also be a roadblock to getting a job.
“A lot of homeless people have warrants because they didn’t go to court for whatever reason,” said Ron Reed, a local attorney and member of the Butte County Bar Association. “That becomes a barrier.”
Over the past eight months, Reed and the association have been working with Michael Madieros and his organization, Stairways Programming, to eliminate those barriers. Reed also is part of a volunteer group called the Thursdays Crew. That group built several dozen lockers at the Stairways facility, for people to store their belongings while they go to court. It also built kennels so homeless individuals don’t have to worry about the safety of their pets while they appear in court.
“You’d be amazed how many [Chico residents] don’t understand why belongings are necessary,” Madieros said. “The lockers are used. They are constantly full.”
Over the past eight months, the two men and their respective organizations also have been working on a larger project: the Harm Reduction Center on Mangrove Avenue. They spoke with the CN&R Monday during an interview in the new facility, which will open officially on Monday (July 17). It will function as a space for addiction and anger management meetings as well as a legal services center for homeless people to meet with attorneys to go over their cases. There will be transportation arranged from the site to the Butte County Superior Courthouse in Oroville in order to take care of warrants that are keeping people on the streets.
The Butte County Bar Association, which put up the money to rent the Mangrove Avenue space, has pledged $3,000 to Stairways to help pay for transportation to and from the courthouse. Representatives from the association also sat down with some of the judges to ensure there wouldn’t be any unnecessary roadblocks once people got to court.
“We can’t guarantee people won’t be remanded into custody,” Reed said. “But we [all] agreed that the plan was a good one. They’ll work with us.”
For the lawyers’ part, offering legal services, pro bono, to the homeless population provides several positive outcomes. First, it eliminates barriers to people who want to better their lives. Second, it cuts back on court, public defender and district attorney caseloads. And, third, it can end the cycle of people getting arrested for an outstanding warrant, going to jail, being fined or cited again, and sent back to the streets.
The group of attorneys calls its program HOPE—Homeless Outreach Program and Education.
Madieros shares Reed’s optimism for the program.
“I think what we’re going to see is people feeling good about their court cases,” Madieros said. “They’ll be able to do laundry the day they go to court, they’ll have a safe place to store their possessions and a safe place for their pets. They’ll be given a sack lunch and a ride to the courthouse. They’ll feel good.
“In my experience,” he continued, “when people talk to you in a presentable, calm way, you see better outcomes.”
One of Stairways Programming’s priorities, which is in line with the bar association’s legal services, is to provide help for people struggling with addiction. It’s Madieros’ belief that not everyone can be helped by the Alcoholics Anonymous model.
“We recognize that everyone is different; not everyone is going to stop [using] tomorrow,” he said. “And not everyone should. We want to get people to at least stop doing harm while treating the reason for their use.”
While Madieros long has been the face of Stairways, he says a year ago he recruited longtime friend Megan Harriman from Indiana, where she was working for Harley-Davidson, to be the organization’s chief financial officer so he can focus more on the social work side.
“She keeps me in line,” he said, acknowledging that his personality rubs some people the wrong way. “She’s the one who’s responsible for our growth; she makes things possible.”
Those who walk into the Mangrove Avenue center likely will see Harriman running the show. “I’m excited to get more involved in the community,” she said, “to really help break down these barriers.”
Madieros emphasized that the harm reduction meetings are open to the public—there’s no requirement that you be homeless to attend. There also will be meetings focused on tools for self-control, which Madieros described as “anger management on steroids.” He said the court ordered its first client to the Harm Reduction Center’s treatment plan on Wednesday (July 12).